“I remain a fan of the type of nonfiction that casts the author as filter rather than subject. Research, substantiated facts, made memorable to the reader because of how the material is assembled, the mode of telling… “
Multifaceted author Kat Meads is on a roll. She just published her seventeenth book and sixth novel, In This Season of Rage & Melancholy Such Irrevocable Acts as These with Mongrel Press, and a lyrical essay called “Leaving the House,” which opens our “Maps & Legends” issue and was one of our Pushcart nominees. A writer recognized in almost every possible genre, she has received an NEA fellowship in poetry, a California Artist fellowship in fiction, and two Silicon Valley Arts Council grants. Her books have won honors and medals too numerous to count. Her short stories have won awards from Chelsea and Inkwell Magazine, her essays from New Letters, Lyra and Drunken Boat. Her short plays have been staged in LA, NYC, Berkeley, and elsewhere. She has been an artist-in-residence at FAWC in Provincetown, Yaddo, Millay Colony for the Arts, Blue Mountain Center, Dorland, and the Montalvo Center for the Arts. She teaches in Oklahoma City University’s Red Earth MFA Program.
Whew. That’s a lot to manage all at once … Find out how she does it here. And don’t forget to read an excerpt from In This Season … and the essay that made us fall in love with Meads’s prose, “Leaving the House“!
What role does truth play in your writing–your nonfiction, certainly, but also any other genre in which you work? How do you see your new novel as telling the truth in some way?
I remember poet Carolyn Maisel once declaring at a Provincetown gathering: “We’re all just trying to get at the truth in our heads, then get it out on the page.” That seems to me an accurate summation. I came to nonfiction by way of an admiration for literary journalism and remain a fan of the type of nonfiction that casts the author as filter rather than subject. Research, substantiated facts, made memorable to the reader because of how the material is assembled, the mode of telling. Fiction is another beast. That said, my latest novel (In This Season of Rage & Melancholy Such Irrevocable Acts as These) grew out of what I’d observed happening in my home county in North Carolina in the late 1970s. The characters are totally invented, but the circumstances in which they find themselves—socially, economically, politically—is a remake of the struggles many people faced at the time.
With all the ideas and experiences crowding your mind, how do you determine when it is time to write a particular one down?
Oh gad, I’m constantly scribbling down stuff. A phrase here, a memory there. Overheard conversations. Titles that might fly. Some curious or interesting fact. Just this week I read that Virginia Woolf adored the color green whereas her sister Vanessa Bell found the color “ubiquitous.” So I scribbled that down too. Before I got it into my head that I absolutely had to carry around some sort of pocket pad, I scribbled on ticket stubs, credit card receipts, bar napkins—even occasionally on my wrist. So it’s not the writing down so much as it is seeing how a bunch of notes will fit together. Or not.
Your writing in “Leaving the House” is very lush and lyrical, almost like a song and a dream combined, if you understand what I mean. How do you select the details that will connect with readers? And how do you compose those details and images into language that pull the reader into the experience?
I must admit “Leaving the House” was a bit of a departure for me in length and language. It’s also a very emotional piece for me (though I don’t expect readers to find it so). I wrote it just before my brother and I had to sell the house built by my father and grandfather from timber on the family farm. A house that both my brother and I had grown up in, a house my brother was born in and also the house in which both our parents died. Quite a lot of family history there. And as I was standing in the dirt road that near-evening, looking at the house across the yard, I realized my time there was truly finished—which produced a torrent of memories and impressions. The final piece, though, is quite short. So the technical challenge for me was compression.
How does your sense of honesty affect the voice in which you write a particular piece, whether fiction or nonfiction?
The novel I mentioned above, Rage & Melancholy, is the third (and final) novel in a series based on where I come from and for many, many years regularly returned to visit. I understand and appreciate better now what I didn’t and couldn’t when I first started writing those novels: that a lot of what went into them is the equivalent of bearing witness regarding a particular time in a particular slice of the South, very little of it pretty and a lot of it painful. My relatives say I could have (meaning: should have) done a bit of sugar coating here and there. But I tried not to do that—for the sake of the fiction and out of respect for what had been.
When you were a struggling/dreaming new writer, what gave you inspiration and kept you going?
Reading, reading and more reading. I’m always astonished when folks talk about yearning to write in one breath and in the next declare they “don’t read much.” That combo makes absolutely no sense to me.
What advice do you have for aspiring and early-career writers?
Don’t let anyone tell you your subject is not your subject—write what has resonance for you. Then keep rewriting it until it also has resonance for a stranger.